On Wednesday, March 14, I walked outside my front door in Mexico City to pick up the day’s issue of Reforma, Mexico’s leading newspaper. The front page headlines included stories ranging from rising drug cartel violence in Cancun to a blizzard in New York, but there was one key story missing—the discovery of 250 skulls in unmarked graves hidden in the state of Veracruz. This is the largest mass grave in the Mexican Drug War, and quite possibly, one of the largest mass graves ever discovered.
A week later, and another 47 skulls were found. Yet there was still silence surrounding what should be one of the biggest stories of 2017 in Mexico, and yes, in the United States too.
For the past week, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Mexico’s silence, about its indifference, about its numbness to the bitter fruits of corruption, impunity, and stark economic inequality. I keep asking myself why I can’t stop thinking about the group of mothers that pushed apathetic Mexican investigators to find the grave.
Maybe it’s because as both a Mexican and American citizen, I am embarrassed and frustrated.
I am embarrassed by the estimated 53 billion dollars that Mexico loses to corruption every year. I am embarrassed that America’s insatiable appetite for Latin American drugs has led to the deaths of 175,000 people in the past ten years in Mexico alone. I am embarrassed that on Jan. 22, a dozen bodies—including seven that were decapitated—were found in an abandoned taxi in the Mexican city of Manzanillo. I am embarrassed that so many Americans travel to Mexico simply because it’s cheap and because they perceive Mexico as a place where it is permissible to misbehave, while so many Mexicans have had to leave their country for those same reasons.
I am frustrated that 99 percent of crimes in Mexico go unpunished. I am frustrated that 70 percent of all the guns used by drug cartels to slaughter civilians were bought in the United States legally. I am frustrated that the prevalence of Mexican heroin in the United States that has fueled an opioid epidemic that has claimed the lives of 33,000 people in 2015 alone. I am frustrated that Mexico’s pain and trauma is now being exploited by an American president to label Mexican immigrants as “bad hombres” and criminals for political gain, never once questioning why people and drugs flow north, and why guns flow south.
This is the second column that I have written on drug violence in Latin America. My first was two and half years ago, but sadly, not much has changed. Latin America has continued to quench America’s thirst for numbness, and in the process Latin Americans have become numb to the horrors of the drug trade. That’s the problem with violence. Once you see or hear enough of it, you embed it into your life as something normal, as something ordinary, when there is nothing ordinary about it. Feelings of fear, sadness, and outrage are tough to muster when you are constantly bombarded with horror, senselessness, and brutality on a daily basis.
From the time I was in high school I remember feeling completely detached from the images of bodies dangling from bridges in Laredo and of mangled corpses in ciudad Juarez sold at intersections in Mexico City. I remember reading about 24 men found on the side of the highway each with a bullet in his head and being pleasantly surprised that their bodies were still intact. I remember sitting on a bus in Guatemala two years ago watching a newspaper salesman selling a newspaper with the image of a decapitated woman, and watching no one around me react, including myself.
Growing up, Mexico City, my hometown, seemed like a separate world from the world of shootings and mass graves that have plagued shifting regions of Mexico for over a decade. The only way I experienced the drug war was through media and cancelled trips, through crime statistics and body counts, through the eyes and ears of strangers. However, those stories and statistics no longer belong to strangers, they belong to people I know and care about deeply.
I have spent much of my college career working with victims of organized crime on the US-Mexico border, in Guatemala, and in Durham, and through this work, I have heard and held stories that have left me speechless, without the ability to move. I have seen the sadness and hurt in the eyes of people whose lives were irrevocably changed by the drug trade. I have felt deep shame for my own ignorance and for my own privileges. I have felt powerless, but worst of all, I have felt hopeless.
Over the past four years, I have consoled Central American migrants who were kidnapped and tortured by drug cartels in Mexico while attempting to make the journey to the United States. I met a man who was forced to carry cocaine in mayonnaise jars across the Arizona desert, and who then asked me in an interview what cocaine was. I spoke to an elementary school principal in Guatemala receiving death threats from students who had joined organized crime groups. I interviewed a firefighter from Veracruz, the same state where the mass grave was discovered a week ago, who described unearthing mass graves with the bodies of children and infants inside of them. And I have sadly only scratched the surface of the violence and poverty that has led to the plight and flight of millions across Latin America.
Unfortunately, the violence that has turned some parts of Latin America into mass graves is very much alive, and 2017 is postulated to be the deadliest year since the drug war began. When will the world finally pay attention? When will the victims of drug violence matter? When will we all assume our guilt and complicity in supporting the structures that have led to the suffering of millions?
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We can build walls and stereotypes about our southern neighbor to shield ourselves from the gruesome realities of poverty and corruption and the violence that they produce, but that doesn’t make those realities go away. We can continue to assume our innocence by issuing travel warnings to Latin America and by throwing up our hands and shrugging at the issues that plague our southern neighbors, but it is the innocence which constitutes the crime. The fact is American dollars, American desires, and American ignorance are allowing drug violence and corruption to thrive in Latin America. As our politicians continue to create distance between Latin America and the United States, I hope we can realize that no amount of political rhetoric can distance us from the death and suffering plaguing our southern neighbors.
Mariana Calvo is a Trinity senior.